Skeptics are often accused of wanting to destroy the fun things in life – the childhood belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, for example. And while there are indeed some folks who take a hard line on such things (perhaps remembering the outrage of “my parents lied to me!”), most skeptics seem to feel that these temporary beliefs are harmless.
I’m among the group that thinks it’s a harmless deception, likely dreamed up by long-ago frustrated parents who didn’t want to have to deal with their kids’ demands for presents – what they get for Christmas is out of our control. It’s Santa Claus! You’ll have to pester him!
On the other hand, I can be a killjoy with the best of them. Forthwith, Exhibit A.
The US television landscape is always big enough to be able to find myriad trends, but at the moment there seem to be three of note. One: remakes, sometimes coupled with embarrassing attempts to appeal to the younger generation (the new show Selfie, for example, is a retelling of Pygmalion). Two: superheroes, all based on either comic books (the fall’s new crop includes a Batman prequel) or Sherlock Holmes (the latest is Forever, an immortal medical examiner who combines Sherlock Holmes’s observational skills with detailed historical knowledge). Many of these are also remakes, prequels, sequels, or alternativequels. Three: period dramas set in the decade or two before women got uppity, all attempts to emulate the success of Mad Men.
Unlike Mad Men, the recent crop are based on actual people and events such as the Manhattan Project (Manhattan), or the sex researchers Masters and Johnson (Masters of Sex), and this is where I run into trouble. It’s one thing to see an interpretation of an era I remember peopled with fictional characters. It’s quite another to have my head filled with fictional versions of the real world with no counterbalance. For me, these shows are a lot of work because I feel required to then learn the facts. Mad Men was an easier ride because it was genuinely fiction (except for a brief dalliance with Conrad Hilton in season 3).
Normally I just avoid anything that crosses this line: Hollywood biopics, for example, which a friend once described as the equivalent of colourised movies. Manhattan, which aired in the US this summer, seemed worth making an exception for, as it’s a rare thing, a show about scientists struggling with the ethics of their work. Besides, and although the project was real all the show’s characters are fictional except J Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London), who flits past a few times but is mostly left safely off-screen. And yet … did the scientists’ wives really accompany them, told nothing and essentially held prisoner in the Arizona desert? I have to know.
Similarly, I have to know, now, the truth, so far as possible, about William Masters and Virginia E Johnson, the researchers who exploded numerous myths about the physiology of sex. (I blame Allison Janney and Beau Bridges, who both won Emmys for their performances, which accordingly had to be seen.) Masters and Johnson weren’t, you will learn if you read the biography by Thomas Maier that underpins the show, anything like so cognisant of emotional connections. Even when they got married in 1971, those who knew them doubted theirs was a love relationship; yet their 1992 divorce still came as a devastating shock to a society that had learned to revere them. Worse was Masters’ contribution to research on homosexuality, as he claimed to be able to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals in a couple of weeks of treatment.
Only three of the real people enumerated in Maier’s biography have counterparts in the show: Bill (Michael Sheen), Gini (Lizzy Caplan), and Bill’s wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald). The rest are wholly fictional; whether they are composited or wholly imagined isn’t clear. Masters and Johnson both had real children who are still alive; the show solves this by giving Bill and Gini different children with different names so they, too, are fictional.
But of course it’s never that simple: the show’s Bill, Gini, and Libby have historical trajectories, but they are also fictional. They have to be: Johnson told Maier in one of their first conversations that she and Masters were two of the most secretive people in the world and that no one really knew them. “Fascinated and repelled by each other” is how Maier describes them, though that was far from the image they presented to the world in trying to change how people thought about and understood sex.
I don’t know if this need to ensure that real history isn’t overwritten in my brain by the made-up stuff is part and parcel of skepticism or just a peculiarly annoying quirk of my personality. All I can say is, I’m glad it’s fall and the new TV season has started, and we’re safely back to pure fiction. Even if it is much sillier and devoid of all intelligence. At least it’s honest stupidity.